What lessons can we draw from the study of history? From Psalm 78 and other texts of Scripture, this article shows that history points to the failures of men and to the grace of God.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2000. 3 pages.

An Unexpected Lesson History’s Failures Teach Us Much – Above All, God’s Grace

Do things always turn out as you expect? I did not ask whether they turned out as you hoped, but rather as you expected. It must be a very rare person who can say that his life’s course has been just what he anticipated. Indeed it is often the very reverse.

May I put a similar question? Can we anticipate the future simply by knowing what God is like and what he is likely to do? Our answer would most likely be that things turn out very differently from what we might expect that God would ordain.

The psalm writers wrestled with their understanding of history: how do we dis­cover God’s purposes and relate the course of history to our knowledge of God? There are a couple of psalms in particular which are devoted to this issue.

Take, for example, Psalm 78. It’s a very surprising psalm because it reverses the common reasons given for the study of history. It begins by saying that young people should be taught about the past. Fathers should teach their children. When people speak about the importance of studying history, they generally mean that the past is to be held up as an example of great and noble deeds so that youth can imitate them.

The psalmist does the reverse: he wants children taught the past so that they will not be the failures that their fathers were.

The bulk of the psalm is taken up with the sorry history of Israel. The psalmist looks at Israel’s history from the time that they left Egypt to the end of the period of the judges. It’s a story of rebellion against God, of Israel’s cowardice and misery. Their spiritual failure was made even more inexcusable by the fact that it happened in the face of God’s miraculous interventions and merciful patience. The psalmist is giving a condensed version of what we find in the historical narratives of the Bible. Certainly there were men of faith in Israel’s past; but they were the exception and not the rule.

By the time Asaph, the psalm’s author, reaches verse 64, Israel is seen as a nation that is strong only in rebellion against God. It is plunged into a nosedive of destruction and misery. In other words, Asaph has carefully followed Israel’s history through the sad story of sin and punishment that we find in the book of Judges and the early part of 1 Samuel.

At this point, Asaph confronts a puzzle. The sin of Israel seemed to be leading them to total destruction. However instead of Israel’s demise, the powerful Davidic king­dom comes into existence. It ushers in a period of prosperity and relief from oppression. Why didn’t God punish the sin of Israel as it deserved? The writer knows he’s confronting a mystery. So he uses a very bold simile to describe what happened: “Then the Lord arose as if from sleep, Like a warrior overcome by wine.” (verse 65). In other words, God got up like a drunk with a sore head and devastated Israel’s enemies. It’s not the expected end of history, but it’s consistent with the whole psalm’s depiction — indeed of the whole Bible’s depiction — of a God who is astounding in his patience and grace to his people.

When we say that history has not gone according to our expectation, we usually mean that it’s contained disappointments for us. That’s because we wrongly believe that we deserve only the best. This psalm deals with a far greater surprise in history: God blesses his people when they do not deserve it.

I have more to say on this theme from other passages of Scripture but, before I do, I must stress the relevance of this psalm to our present situation. We have a tendency to give a quite false history of the church as though it’s a history of accomplishment. We say: “Look at all the buildings we have erected. Look at the schools, colleges and so on.” We omit the church’s unfaithful­ness to God, the false teaching, the lack of love and compassion, the internal squab­bles. Since we do not teach the real history to those who come after us, we encourage them to repeat our sins.

And yet the church still exists and even experiences blessing. For God is unexpect­edly merciful. The more we hide our own failure as well as the failure of former gen­erations, the more we obscure the grace of God. The writer in Psalm 78 was telling real history; that’s why his account humbles man and exalts God.

Of course, we may be so familiar with the story of David’s rise that it does not surprise us. So let me go to a less familiar history — the account of Jeroboam son of Joash in 2 Kings 14:23-27. Jeroboam was one of the evil kings of Israel. He wor­shipped the golden calves at Dan and Bethel. Once again, it’s an unexpected his­tory:

He did evil in the sight of the Lord ... he restored the border of Israel ... the Lord saw the affliction of Israel ... he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.

God’s mercy uses an evil king as a saviour, even when the man’s heart has not been changed. It is not our misfortune that makes history hard to fathom; it is God’s mercy.

God’s mercy means that the wicked do not receive the punishment which they seem to deserve. That in itself leads to con­fusion.

Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil. Ecclesiastes 8:11

Asaph wrestles with another conse­quence of the longsuffering of God in Psalm 73. He observes that evil men seem to prosper in the world. A believer might well ask why he should bother to be faith­ful when God seems to bless those who defy him. The psalmist overcomes his doubts about God’s faithfulness in a significant way. He knows that to speak out his doubts would be to harm other believers (verse 15). The convincing answer comes when he enters the sanctuary of God.

Throughout the Old Testament the sanctuary is the place for the display of God’s holiness (see Isaiah 6:1-5). It’s in that context that the psalmist’s perception changes. The final judgment of the wicked becomes impressed upon him (verses 18-20). It is only from the perspective of God’s holiness, a holiness that will finally deal with sin, that the whole picture becomes clear. Scripture clearly teaches a final judgment (Daniel 12:1-2; Matthew 25:31-46). God’s longsuffering and kindness, even to those who hate him, does not overcome his holiness because God will reveal it at the final judgment.

Unless we believe this, life presents us with huge injustices. It’s not necessarily the righteous who prosper. Our most honest actions may produce our greatest miseries. How much more the problem for the man who denies a holy God and a final judgment! He sees the injustices of life. It may be convenient for him to cover his own sins by magnifying those of others. His response is frustration and anger. He may try to become the world’s sheriff, taking the law into his own hands. His attempt to play God and inflict punishment may involve violence, or it may merely be a turning a foul mood upon everybody. Scripture, in contrast, tells the believer to leave the final reckoning to God and to love his enemy (Romans 12:17-21).

Asaph begins Psalm 73 where it ends: “Surely God is good to Israel”. After we have worked through these issues and are no longer confused by the apparent injus­tices of life, then we can see God’s mercy to his people. Even when it seems that God favours others rather than his people, that is still true. The New Testament version of that same truth is expressed by Paul. While he lists the experiences of the believer as “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword” he still affirms that the greatest miseries of this life cannot “separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

Allow me to turns to another psalm which brings together some of these themes: Psalm 106. It begins with praise of God and the psalmist confidently turning to him for help. Then it goes into the history of Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s judgments. In that, it is very similar to Psalm 78. The Bible is the story of the repeated failure and apostasy of the people of God.

However, there is another theme which recurs throughout this psalm. It’s the theme of God’s unwillingness to take the final step to destroy his people. It shows itself in several ways. When Israel, having come out of Egypt, refused to believe and trust God, he, desiring to make his power known throughout the nations, refrained from destroying them (verse 6).

Again, when Israel made the golden calf, it was Moses as mediator who stood between the people and the wrath of God (verse 23). Phinehas was a different sort of mediator after Israel joined the worship of Baal-Peor (Numbers 25:1-13). By bringing God’s judgment and purifying the camp of sin, he saved his people from wrath (verses 28-31).

Thus this psalm brings out several things which are basic to biblical religion. God, who wants to make his power known, may withhold his anger. Nevertheless, the real aversion of God’s wrath requires a mediator. Phinehas did it by punishing sin and cleansing the camp; Moses by offering himself for destruction in the place of the people (Exodus 32:32). These both point to the work of Christ as mediator between us and God’s anger. He purifies the camp and saves his people by taking both their sin and God’s wrath upon himself.

At the centre of history is a surprise. When we do away with the false gloss that has been put on history, we see sin and failure. What hope is there if even Christians are so bad? The surprise at the centre of history is that God saves his people who do not deserve it. That is the history the psalmists tell. Let us make sure we tell the same story.

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